Antique music boxes – my first encounter with them was at the Orgel Museum in Otaru, Hokkaido when most tourists were being ushered into the main building with modern musical boxes and souvenir items, I made my way into another building a few doors away and discovered a wonderful collection of antique music boxes! Imagine my delight when I heard that a music box museum would be opening here in Singapore!
The Singapore Musical Box Museum is the first of its kind in Singapore and stemmed from a promise that Japanese collector Naoto Orui made to his mentor, Graham Webb, more than 30 years ago, to bring a musical box that was made in Singapore in the late 1800s back to its homeland. More details on this locally made music box can be found further down in this post.
Orui-san has moved part of his musical box collection from his museum in Nagoya to Singapore and this gentleman has a passionate interest to educate Singaporeans on how music boxes played a part in our country’s history before it gained independence.
The museum is housed within the Chong Wen Ge building, next to the Thian Hock Keng Temple in Telok Ayer Street.
I was fortunate to have Orui-san take me on a tour of the exhibits and soon discovered the many wonderful stories behind each of the musical boxes. Did you know that clocks and music boxes are closely related? (think of grandfather clocks and those clocks which chime to tell the time) There are many similarities between a clock’s mechanism and a music box – if you remove the alarm component in the clock, it is actually somewhat like a music box as it plays a tune. In addition, the wood used for making musical boxes is important as it helps to bring out the sound.
There were several different categories of musical boxes on display and the first section that I was introduced to were the Cylinder Musical Boxes.
This cylinder musical box dates back to 1878 and was made in Italy, with its movement being made in Switzerland.
Cylinder music boxes are typically made of metal and powered by a spring. If you take a closer look at the cylinder, you can see raised pins on its surface and these help to produce the melodious tunes in the music box by displacing the tuned teeth/”reeds” of a flat piece of metal called a comb. The tines of the comb will “ring” or produce a sound, as they slip off the pins.
The one below is the Mandoline Tremolo Zither, a cylinder music box made in Switzerland in the 1880s.
This next one 6 Airs, made in Switzerland in 1875, is quite small in size as compared to most of the other cylinder musical boxes that we’ve seen but surprisingly has a crisp and loud voice!
There’s an interesting personal story behind this paticular music box as it was purchased from a flea market in England and priced at £10 as the owner said it wasn’t in working condition. Orui-san at the time had learnt a fair bit on repairing and restoring musical boxes and thus he took it on as a challenge to try to fix it. When he was about to take the mechanism apart, he discovered that there was a ring stuck in it and that was the reason why it couldn’t work! Thus, it didn’t take much effort to “repair” it! Orui-san later went back to locate the owner to return the ring as it could possibly be a family heirloom or have some sentimental value attached to it. For the full story on the events that followed, you’ll have to go down and find out for yourself! 😀
The next section showcases the Disc Musical Boxes.
I was told that these are cheaper to produce as all that needed to be done was to punch holes into the metal discs and this also meant that they could be mass produced! The tune is punched out on the disc with the pitch being determined by the position of the punching. Did you know that these disc musical boxes were in existence before the invention of the phonograph and vinyl record players?
Polyphon Table Model Style 45
Sublime Harmony Piccolo, made in Germany around 1890.
As mentioned earlier on, one of the reasons behind the opening of this museum is this particular music box which was made in Singapore in the late 1800s.
At the age of 29, Orui-san started learning how to repair and restore music boxes from his mentor, Mr. Graham Webb. During this period of training, he was shown five musical boxes which were made in Singapore but most of them have since gone to various collectors and this is the remaining one which Orui-san promised Webb to bring back to Singapore some day.
Here’s a closer look at the music box…
Unfortunately at the time of my visit, this music box was still awaiting restoration by UK specialist James Preddy (also formerly a student of Webb) and hopefully he can help to bring it back to working condition as it will definitely be exciting to hear what tunes this music box can produce!!
If you are wondering why the sign mentions China, Orui-san had done some research and found that in the days of Singapore’s colonial past, the British had taught Singapore craftsmen how to repair watches and clocks. Subsequently, when musical boxes were brought into the country, as the mechanisms for both clocks and music boxes are similar, these same craftsmen would also repair and maintain musical boxes and eventually they even started making musical boxes themselves. In those days, any goods manufactured in the East would be considered as “Made in China” or “Made in India”, thus if you found a “Chinese musical box” being sold in Europe, there was a possibility that it was a music box that was made in Singapore! Orui-san also mentioned that he felt Singapore was technologically very advanced in the late 19th century and was even ahead of Japan at that point of time! Wow…I learnt something new!!
Over time, the musical boxes evolved and became more versatile and melodious, with some even incorporating other musical instruments (e.g. bells, drum, triangle, castanet, organ, etc…) into one big “music box” and some coin-operated ones were also built!
Now for my favourite musical box in the entire collection….
The Atlantic, dated 1902 was initially supposed to go on the Titanic but they wanted a bigger one and so this music box went onto the Atlantic instead.
If we take a closer look at it, this automatic musical instrument also contains Piano, Mandolin, Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Cymbals and even a Triangle!
This is actually a coin-operated musical box and there is a slot on the left of it where you can drop in the coin. I guess this one probably earned quite a bit of money in its heyday as it required gold coins to be deposited before the mechanisms are activated to play a tune! For the purpose of demonstration in the museum, the mechanism has since been tweaked to accept one-penny coins.
I loved the rich tones and melodious tunes of this music box as they were reminiscent of a bygone era. It’s no wonder that many private collectors have been eyeing this particular box for their collections! Thankfully the museum has acquired it and its music can be shared with all visitors to the museum. 🙂
The one on the extreme left of the picture below is also a coin-operated box but it is somewhat like a jukebox and you can select a tune of your choice to be played.
This is a Polyphon Style 6, Disc musical box, made in Germany around 1905. After you have selected the tune that you want, you’ll then need to put in a silver coin to get it started (haha…this one sounds cheaper than the previous one I mentioned which only accepted gold coins!)
There are the selection of songs:
Instructions on how to operate this music box can also be found:
I had a listen of “Ave Maria” as this particular tune out of the rest was in its best condition (don’t forget these are antique music boxes so some items may have deteriorated over time).
I enjoyed listening to this and got to see the mechanisms at work too!
Finally, the last one that I’m featuring in this post is this Orchestral Musical Box, a cylinder musical box made in Switzerland around 1890.
If we look at its components, we can see other instruments like a drum with 8 sticks, 6 bells, a castanet and a double reed 26 notes organ! This music box can play 8 tunes.
Fans of Alicia Keys may find this music box familiar as it appeared in her “No One” music video. Watch the MV and you can’t possibly miss it!
Overall, it definitely was an educational visit for me and I learnt a fair bit about the music boxes and part of Singapore’s history.
Many thanks to Orui-san for the tour of the museum and Yoshie Osawa for helping to arrange the visit!
Tel: 6221 0102
Mon-Fri 10:00 – 18:00 (last admission 17:30)
Hourly tours are available from 10:30 to 17:30.
Students (with concession cards), Seniors above age 60 (with valid IDs) $6
Getting There by MRT: About a 5-min walk from Tanjong Pagar station, exit G.
Entrance to the museum:
A look at the entrance/exit doorway from the inside of the compound.
Another look at the side of the building which houses the museum.
There is also a fascinating pagoda in the compound, which you can admire during your visit to the museum.